My sister is 'downsizing'. She has sold her big house in the country, and is buying a much smaller place, close to services and shops, in a Victorian seaside town. Over the holidays, I went with her to have a look at a few houses for sale.
The ones I loved were 100 year old weatherboard Federation style houses, with lovely high ceilings, and stained glass windows, and carved mantelpieces, and beautiful wooden floors with the rich patina of being trodden by many feet over many years, and gardens with huge old trees and ancient gnarled wisteria climbing everywhere. These houses also had asbestos issues, holes in the gutters, rotten stumps, non-compliant verandas, and needed all their wiring replacing.
'I don't want to buy a whole new set of problems,' said my sister wisely, if a little wistfully.
We went to look at a more modern, brick house, situated close to the town center.
When we got out of the car and saw that the front yard was completely concreted and not a single tree or bush to be seen, my sister said, 'Let's get out of here,' but I urged her on.
'We've got to have something to compare,' I said.
A man in his forties was hovering about, trying to control a very large, aggressive-looking, bull mastiff type of dog, who barked incessantly the whole time we were there. He had been, (still was), a very good looking man, but was clearly going to seed, muscles turning to fat, and some sort of massive resentment or unhappiness written all over his face.
The agent, a typically smart, heavily made up, high-heeled woman of a certain age, greeted us without enthusiasm. She could see immediately that the next 15 minutes of her life was going to be wasted.
The rooms were all pokey, the carpets stained. The built in robes had been abused by teenagers. In the master bedroom, a king size bed filled the room, and had been hastily covered by a leopard print doona, while a huge mirror covered the entire wall opposite. The kitchen was run down, with only a single sink and a badly marked upright stove, and no pantry.
A long, tacked-on living space at the back of the house had a raised platform to accommodate two absolutely enormous recliner chairs. Two others sat on the floor below them, all four facing in the same direction - towards a massive TV screen on the opposite wall. The windows had some complicated mechanism for being blacked out completely.
We went out into the backyard. The man still hovered, holding his dog by its collar. Across the entire width of the backyard was a shed, with a large sign over the door, 'Man Cave.' A sort of half giggle, half snort escaped me. I felt the man watching us go in - oh, how he longed to let go of the dog! We were intruders now.
There was a huge bar, such as might be accommodated in an average sized pub, and complete with all the spirits you could ever want or think of. Parked next to it was a helicopter. It looked to be about the same size as E's helicopter, and I peeked inside - it was a two-seater, so definitely bigger than his. Next to that was about $80,000 worth of power boat on a very large trailer - but I know nothing of power boats, it could well have been worth more. We walked on, a bit dazed. There was a bedroom with another king size bed - it looked as if the man outside had only just got out of it 10 minutes ago. Next to the bedroom, a single shower and a small kitchenette ticked the last boxes on his list.
The agent saw us out.
'It's a bit overpriced,' said my sister, tactfully.
'He wants to get that,' said the agent, dropping her voice to a whisper. 'It's part of a divorce settlement.'
Nothing remained to be said. We got back in the car, and observed a minute's silence. I was no longer in the mood for the hilarious commentary I'd been rehearsing in the house. 'I don't love you any more' is the equivalent of applying RoundUp to the soul.
PostScript. In a currently very hot real estate market in this area, where houses are being snapped up within 24 hours of going on the market, (as my sister's was), this house remains unsold.
My eye was pierced by a sharp leaf. I was bending over in the garden to see if some newly potted little plants had enough water, and suddenly, ouch! a sharp pointed leaf on the bay tree stabbed me right in the eye.
I rubbed my eye and carried on. It was annoying, and it hurt, but I wanted to finish what I was doing. It was half an hour before I went inside and sat down to talk to D about what he'd been doing with the cattle.
'What have you done to your eye?' he said.
'Oh, something stabbed me, that's all.'
He came over to have a closer look.
'It's bleeding,' he said. 'You've got to put pressure on it, and lie down.'
I did as I was told. But how long was this going to go on for? I had a great many things to do, we were going away the next day.
I heard him on the phone, explaining, answering questions. I closed my yes, pressing the pad he'd given me to the injured eye, which I had to own was now hurting quite a bit. He came back in and looked at it carefully, then went back to the phone.
'It's a hematoma, and it's growing. It's about 5 millimetres from the iris.'
Then he came back again to tell me, 'You've got to have it checked out at the hospital. We're meeting the ambulance at Uriarra Crossing.'
I groaned and mentally gave up on the day. We drove up the Brindabella Road, each bump and jerk hurting, but I kept the pressure pack on my eye. I thought about what it would be like to be blind in one eye. How would it change things? Would I still be able to drive? But I was not panicking, or even very frightened. It all seemed far fetched, after all, it was only a bay leaf.
We met the ambulance as we started down the hill towards Canberra.
'Shall I tell them your husband's been knocking you about?' said the well-into-middle-age but extremely nice and competent paramedic who helped me out of the car. It was an inept and ill-judged joke, and he blanched at it when he saw my face. 'Forget I said that,' he offered, and I wondered how long the joke had been in his repertoire for lightening up terrible situations. Perhaps this would be the last time he used it.
Inside the ambulance, he strapped me in, hooked me up to the blood pressure monitor, examined my eye, and gave me a shot of painkillers up the nose, simultaneously taking notes, talking into his radio, talking to his driver, and explaining everything he was doing and everything that was going to happen, while seeming to be calm to the point of laid back. He managed to take a complete history of the eye stabbing event, as well as all the relevant medical history, by way of what felt like an engaging conversation.
If ever there was a place to completely hand over control to someone else, it's the inside of an ambulance. As the Fentonyl kicked in, a little part of my mind was admiring of the training and expertise that enabled him to do his job both so professionally and so amicably, but I was starting to feel like he was going to be my new best friend. Drifting off to sleep, I'd wake up and see his kind face, eyes fixed on me, checking, observing, and I'd tell him things. I told him about the only time I ever had a panic attack. I told him about little G being in hospital last week, and how fearful I'd been. I told him about my hip operation, and how lovely it was to be able to walk without pain again. I told him much more than he needed to know. (But he was probably assessing my mental health as well.) I wanted to hold his hand. I wanted to know his name.
When we got to A and E, he fetched me a wheelchair, and I watched him doing a handover to the nurse. It was a perfect summary of my ramblings, but I did rather wish he'd told her it was a bay leaf that stabbed me, not just any old leaf.
I was put into the Fast Track waiting room, where I stayed for two and a half hours. D arrived, and fetched coffee and what food could be found.
Other people came and went, in an order that was impossible to determine. Many also looked as if they had had busy days rudely interrupted - men in work boots, covered in builder's dust; public servants with their ID cards still round their necks. No one dresses for A and E - it's just the clothes you were standing in when it happened.
Finally, it was my turn. The eye specialist was a young man, who seemed to have done a degree in communication skills as well as optometry, his instructions were so precise and his explanations so clear. The bay leaf had narrowly missed my iris, but scratched the surface of the eyeball, making it bleed. I had to have antibiotic eye drops and cream I was not going to be blind, but my eye would be lurid shades of red, orange and green until at least after Christmas.
D drove us home. I was tired and chastened. It was late, the day was over and everything I'd been going to do still waiting to be done. Somewhere in Canberra, my ambulance driver was on the scene, calming the hysterical, managing the disastrous, and my eye specialist was looking into yet another frightened pair of eyes. I saw my lovely Brindabella world again, through two good eyes. Oh, I am lucky, lucky, lucky!
The garden was the most beautiful it has been. Exuberant and happy, loving the late Spring rain, having been dry through most of October. Plants that had been holding back, diffident about their chances, were now making a run for it, spaces filling up with greenery and flowers tumbling everywhere. Trees were covered in their bright, almost iridescent new leaves. Daisies and poppies waved happily over everything. Bearded iris were being glorious everywhere. Dahlias all up, both new and old. Buds on the roses. Canna lily leaves strong and stately, no longer scared of frost.
The thunder rumbled over in the afternoon, black clouds rolled over the hill tops. It went dark. The clouds burst with torrential rain. The gutters immediately overflowed, and puddles became small lakes in the gravel. The garden steadied itself, drank it in. But then suddenly, hail. Big, hard, ferocious balls of ice, fired from the sky like bullets, bouncing as they hit the ground, thousands and thousands of them, relentless, for a good twenty minutes. I watched it through the bedroom window, terribly anxious, willing it to stop. D. brought the shoes inside, and rescued Bella, who had got confused and didn't know which door to come in.
When it finally stopped, and the thunder and clouds rolled away to cause havoc elsewhere, I went out to have a look. Everything that had been upright and reaching for the sunshine, was flattened to the ground and covered with soil. Petals were bruised, shredded, or simply blown away. Buds broken off. Most of the new leaves on the Persian silk trees gone. Canna lily leaves shredded, as if someone had taken a pair of scissors to them and cut them all up. All the gay purple poppy flowers gone, leaving behind bald stalks sticking up everywhere. New leaves on small new trees now lying in the mud on the ground.
Utterly mysterious how some things appeared completely unaffected. The dahlias, which will succumb at a moment's notice to frost and snails, apparently thought nothing at all of the hail storm from hell. Winter Joy, valerian, pentsemons and salvias, all behaving as if nothing happened. ('Different cellular structure,' said D.) So I counted my blessings, as I always do.
And the glory day of the garden, the day before the storm, has already become defined by its ending. 'I wish you had seen it,' I will say, 'before the hail storm.' Perfection and happiness will once again be known as a memory, and not understood as the living breathing NOW. How lovely it was!
Looking back through an old notebook, I came across this exploration for a new story:
'A frustrated, resentful young mother, determined to have her walk, strides along the beach making New Year resolutions. Something will happen that will prevent her return to her family, something that will both challenge her self-centeredness and drive a much deeper wedge between her and her husband. A life-course changing event. But what? This is just the beginning. All the essential elements are here, but I have absolutely no idea what happens next!'
You can read the complete story that this idea became, 'Choices', on this website. It also forms part of my new short story collection, 'Habits of Silence.'
I long ago dropped the notion that there were complete stories lurking in my imagination if I could only magically bring them into the light. Stories are constructed. They start with an idea, an incident, a scene, a character, and are built up in a way that may be more or less chaotic or organised, until some thing begins to emerge from the material.
My notebooks attest to many many beginnings, that have not, so far, progressed. I seem to be good at them, producing the character, the setting, getting straight into the scene, getting the reader's attention. Here is a recent one, provisionally titled, ''Where do Spirits Go?"
It was my first dead body.
I know that this is supposed to be a significant moment in your life, like the first time you have sex. Or your first overseas trip. (Martin said last night that he went to Mexico on his first trip, and I said Wow! Did he stay in Youth Hostels? And he said, No, you dork, my body was flat on the bed in Manchester, it was my spirit being that went to Mexico.)
The Charge Nurse told me when I got to work.
'Sad news about Mr. Stubbs.'
(He's called Mr. Stubbs because of the way he's always collecting cigarette butts.)
'He died an hour ago at breakfast,' the Charge Nurse went on. "We're still waiting for the doctor to come.'
'Isn't it a bit late for that if he's already dead?' I said.
But the Charge Nurse, who's called Ray Braithwaite and is really nice, said the doctor had to pronounce him dead before we could call the undertakers to come and take the body away. 'Go and have a look at him,' he said. 'He's in Room 2.'
So I did. Room 2 was down the back of the ward, by the back entrance. It wasn't the room Mr. Stubbs had lived in for the last 26 years, but I guess they'd put him there so he could be carried out discreetly. I had such a shock when I pushed the door open. He was completely naked. Just lying on the bed, with his arms at his sides and his toes pointing to the ceiling. I went to the side of the bed and stood looking at him. I was surprised I wasn't scared. More awed really.
His stomach stood up like a huge hill that rose from his chest up a slope to an impossible summit, then fell to the shriveled little mound of jumbled flesh and hair that was his penis and balls. And so much curly black hair! It was thick, all over his chest, and even on his stomach. His thighs too, thick with it. I stared at his skin, it was like looking at a close up photograph, all the pores and marks seemed magnified, and the colours lurid and blotchy like a bad painting.
His face was just nothing. I touched his cheek, it wasn't as cold as I was expecting. But his fat purple lips were never going to ask for another cigarette again. Mr. Stubbs had gone, and left his body behind.
'He was well looked after,' Ray said, when I went back to the nurse's station. 'We've got nothing to be concerned about.' I couldn't stop thinking about it though.
Yesterday, we had had a sort of conversation, Mr. Stubbs and me. I'd gone outside to have a smoke and a bit of peace. Not that there's much peace to be had these days since they'd opened up all the back wards and let the patients wander about at will outside. Mr. Stubbs liked to do the rounds, picking up his butts. He kept them in a tin, which he carried in a plastic shopping bag. When he wasn't picking up butts, he'd be sitting on the wooden seat under the chestnut tree. If he had enough, he'd roll them into a thin cigarette, scrounge a light off someone, and then draw the smoke down, deep as it would go, staring up into the branches of the tree.
'Hey Nurse, got a light?' he called to me as I walked past. He wasn't allowed matches, he'd set too many fires.
So I lit his ciggie for him, and then lit my own,
'Don't wait too long,' he said.
I didn't really know what to say to that, so I sat down next to him. He didn't say anything else though, just concentrated on inhaling, and moving his restless feet up and down. A magpie warbled above us. He can't have had any idea that he'd be dead the next day.
What happens next? I have absolutely no idea!
This is a story about my hair, and how it once came to be a problem.
In the beginning, my hair was not a problem. I had plaits as a child. My mother plaited my hair every morning. I stood between her legs, leaning on her slightly, feeling the gentle tugging of her fingers. Every night, she undid the plaits and brushed my hair. She bought ribbons from the haberdashery that she tied over the elastic bands in pretty bows, and also slides with butterflies and flowers on them that kept the wayward wisps off my face. Between the plaiting in the morning and the unplaiting at night, I didn't have to think about my hair at all.
But one day - I would have been about nine or ten - my mother decided to have my plaits cut off. Perhaps she had grown impatient with the time it took to do my hair. Perhaps she thought I had got too old for plaits. Perhaps she just wanted something to be different, and on a whim fixed on my hair. I can't remember it being discussed.
She took me to a hairdresser in town. There was a considerable sense of occasion about it. I sat up high on the booster cushion so I could see in the mirror. The hairdresser didn't undo my plaits, she cut them off with a huge pair of shears, and then dangled them in front of my face. She and my mother were laughing, my mother rather nervously I think. The hairdresser clearly saw it as a cause for celebration. She must have trimmed what was left of my hair, tidied the ragged ends up somehow, but I don't remember this.
My mother might have said, 'I don't know what her Daddy's going to say!' Something, at any rate, prompted the hairdresser to launch suddenly into a scene which has remained with me vividly to this day. Holding a plait in each hand, she bent close to my face, and whispered, 'When your Daddy comes home, HIDE!' Then, her voice rising dramatically, she went on, 'Hide behind the door! And when he comes in, JUMP OUT, and wave your plaits at him, and say HERE'S SOME FISH FOR YOUR SUPPER!' And she shook the plaits madly at me, her eyes wide and her coarse face shining just like a fish wife's.
What a strange thing it seems now! Did my plaits remind her of a couple of slaughtered plaice, perhaps? Maybe she had a long ago memory of her own, of a father taken off guard at the sight of his newly shorn and suddenly-much-older-looking daughter.
On the bus going home, I clutched the plaits tightly, and told my mother that I was going to do exactly as the hairdresser had suggested. Playing tricks on my father was not normally part of my repertoire; indeed, practical jokes and nasty surprises of any kind were firmly discouraged in my family. But the hairdresser had seemed to carry an authority and wordliness that somehow convinced me that my father would find the joke hilarious, and not, therefore, mind about my hair being cut off. I entirely missed my mother's non-committal, muted response. Perhaps she too was half convinced that the hairdresser's bull-by-the-horns approach was the way to go. At any rate, she didn't tell me not to do it.
I see myself now, hiding behind the lounge door, holding my plaits, holding my breath, my heart thudding in the sudden realisation that what I am about to do is outlandishly out of character, and not funny at all, but it is too late, my father is coming through the door, and I leap out, wildly waving the amputated plaits and shouting bizarrely, 'Here's some fish for your supper!' (We didn't even have 'supper' in our house, it wasn't even a thing.)
I see my father flinching away. He is surprised, but he's not laughing. He takes one of the plaits from me, perhaps he doesn't quite understand what he is seeing. He looks at it strangely, then hands it back to me.
'What have you done?' he says, but already I am too ashamed to respond.
We sit at the table to eat. My father eats in silence, and he doesn't look at me. My mother attempts conversation, then she gives up and we all eat in silence.
So begins five years of conflict and misery over my hair. Not with my father, who passes no further comment on it, ever. But it's as if he started a war and then left the battlefield. For, from this time forward, the sight of my hair seems to set my mother's teeth on edge. She never does my hair again, it's now my responsibility, and my struggle every day becomes, how can I find a way to do it that will take away her frown of disapproval and annoyance? How can I make her like my hair again?
When the day finally came, I had a slight sense of unreality. It all seemed to have taken such long time. A good two years since Finlay Lloyd first committed to publishing a collection of my stories. Months and months of final editing, moulding stories I had imagined finished into even better shape; changing endings; deciding on the order of the stories; deciding which stories to include. To say nothing of the time each individual story had taken, up to ten years in some cases, to get from the day I first put pen to paper with the germ of an idea, to the last few weeks of literally dotting the i's and crossing the t's.
The book was in my hands, a beautiful, dark, silky feel to it, a most evocative cover photograph, and my writing, presented like a gift, substantial and real. Ready for other readers.
The launch was at the National Library, on the Canberra Writers Festival weekend. I bought a new top and new shoes, and had my hair cut. I had asked a lot of friends, but my expectations were low. Perhaps three rows of chairs in the Ferguson Room would be full, I thought. Well, there'd be more champagne to go round.
But friends came from far and wide. People came from interstate, just for the launch. People who had warmly and encouragingly followed my writing ups and downs for years were there, happy to say they always knew that this day would come. People wandered in from the Festival, because they thought my book looked interesting. All my kids, and all their kids, were there. The grandchildren sat cross legged on the floor at the front, smiling up admiringly at their Grandma. It was standing room only.
Julian Davies from Finlay Lloyd warmly introduced the book, and its, by now euphoric, author. John Clanchy did his usual entertaining and insightful commentary on the stories and the writing.
Then I got up to say my heartfelt thank you's, to make a few comments of the particularities of writing short stories, and to read.
'Oh, it's a story!' my youngest grandchild exclaimed, as I started. I read a couple of passages, from Us and Them, and The Man on the Path, and this, for me, was pretty much the best part of all. I've always loved reading aloud, and there are so few opportunities to practice this delightful skill. The pleasure was doubled by it being my own work that I was reading.
Afterwards, I sat and signed books, chatting with friends and well wishers who had ventured their $22 on their faith in my stories. Finally the champagne, the merriment, the buzz of conversation as friends connected with each other and like minds found each other. Old friends not seen for ages were embraced and welcomed, and children ran about with their cousins. Photographs were taken. A bread stick sword fight between two younger cousins was broken up. Everyone was proud and happy, and everyone - rightly - took a little credit.
I wore the yellow party dress, because my sister Jennifer wasn't going to this party.
The dress had been given to Jennifer by our step-grandmother, when she had once taken her to high tea at the Grand Hotel. It was much more beautiful than my own party dress, (which was quite plain, blue satin, with hardly any gathers.) The yellow party dress had layers of fine tulle over the skirt, and very full gathers. It was covered in sequins, with a lovely yellow sash that tied in a bow at the back. It was like the dress of a princess in my Grimm's Fairy Story book.
My mother bought me new ribbons - yellow, with tiny flowers all over them.
The party was in a large bungalow in Trentham. My mother always used to say she wished she lived in a bungalow instead of a semi detached. We didn't know anybody in Trentham, people with money lived there; but we often used to walk to Trentham Gardens for picnics. My mother would look at the lovely houses on the way, with their mock Tudor gables and big glassed in porches. Their gardens trailed prettily over little stone walls next to the pavement, and my mother would nip little pieces off as we walked past. 'It needed pruning anyway,' she'd say, tucking the little green piece into her basket.
On this occasion, we didn't walk; my mother drove me to the party in the car, and left me on the doorstep.
I didn't know another child there. I didn't even know who the party girl was. Perhaps her mother was some distant acquaintance of my mother, and was just trying to get the numbers up.
There were a lot of boys running everywhere. colliding with things, just like in the playground at school. The girls stood fluffing up the skirts of their party dresses - most of them had layers of tulle like mine.
We played Musical Chairs. A tall lady with bright red lipstick arranged the dining room chairs in a row, then sat down to play the piano. The boys stayed really close to the chairs, which wasn't fair, but the grown ups didn't stop them. The girls squealed when the music stopped. I was the first to be out, and I watched the rest of the game wishing I was still in it.
Then we played Pin the Tail on the Donkey. When it was my turn, it seemed as if the world dissolved and all the noise retreated behind the dark, soft scarf. 'Can you still see?' said the lady with the lipstick suspiciously, tugging the scarf tighter. I didn't want to see. I felt invisible, stepping forwards blindly, guided by strange hands. I was very sure I knew exactly where to pin the tail, but then I heard the laughter, and the hands pulled off the scarf, and I saw that I had pinned it ludicrously far away, on the donkey's neck. I stood about again then - there was a lot of standing about, watching. It was all part of having a lovely time.
When it was finally time to eat, we were all called together and trooped into the dining room. We sat at a very large, long table, that was spread with an embroidered cloth, and laid with silver dishes and paper doilies and thick white serviettes. There were tiny sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and little sausages rolls, and jam tarts, and a Victoria sponge. The grown ups passed the food around, and everyone was suddenly quiet and remembered their manners. If you didn't like something, you left it on the side of your plate tidily and didn't complain.
The birthday cake was a Battenberg cake, that I had only ever had before at the Maypole Café on special occasions. When we sang Happy Birthday, I wished that it was my birthday, my cake, and my party. I wished it was my house. My own life seemed suddenly dull. What single thing did I have that could compare to this?
There was one final game before the party finished - Pass the Parcel. We sat cross legged in a circle, and the lipsticked lady sat at the piano again. But how could you have a turn at unwrapping the parcel if the boy sitting next to you wouldn't let it go? And when you finally had it in your hands, the piano continued relentlessly. I watched the paper being torn off again and again, and still it came round and I still had a chance. Then, to my astonishment, it was in my lap, where the boy next to me had furiously hurled it, and the music had stopped. I pulled off the paper, and there was no more paper left. There in my hands was a large box of oranges and lemons - the sugar coated jellies, I should add, but they did not need explanation then. They were really grown up sweets. They had a rind, in a slightly firmer jelly and a slightly darker colour, and they tasted - well, how jellies used to taste, utterly delicious, soft, melt in the mouth, sweet and citrusy. and NOT chewy. This box had a cellophane cover. I could see the sweets arranged in overlapping layers, circles of lemon and orange, dozens and dozens of them.
The children's coats were being fetched, the parents were arriving. I stood holding my box of oranges and lemons, my dress, the house, and everything else forgotten, disbelieving, lost in the wonder of it. I'd never had such luck before. I'd never had a box of sweets like this before.
I remember nothing of leaving the party. But there is a clear flash of memory, of sitting in the back of the car, the box of oranges and lemons on my knee. We are driving home, and I am anxious that this too-good-to-be-true moment will end, that my mother will say, 'Put those away until after dinner,' or 'you'll have to share with Jennifer,' or 'give them to me, they're not suitable for a child.' But she doesn't say any of these things, and I carefully open the box and wonder whether to have an orange or a lemon first. I choose an orange, and it's just as delicious as I knew it would be, and then I choose a lemon.
When we get home, my mother does not take the box off me. She smiles at me, and says, 'Aren't you a lucky girl?' Perhaps she is distracted, perhaps she doesn't realise that there are quite so many sweets in the box. I take it up to my bedroom, and put it in my drawer, and over the next few days, I eat every single one.
We never went to the bungalow in Trentham again, and if I ever saw the little girl whose party it was again, it made no impression at all.
'Ordinary People' in Nazi Germany - The Wish Child, Catherine Chidgey, and The Book Thief, Markus Zusak.
Both these novels explore the lives of 'ordinary ' German families living through the years of WW11.
'The Wish Child', by Catherine Chidgey, published in New Zealand in 2016, has recently won the New Zealand Book Award. I could not help wondering if it was possible there could be another novel that could still find something different to say about Nazi Germany, but Catherine Chidgey achieves this.
We are plunged into a re-telling of the still-too-close, strange but familiar horrors of this time, but the horrors are felt rather than seen. This is a mesmerising, soul shaking book. The prose at times feels like a religious chant, repetitive, sonorous, hypnotic. It carries the reader forward on wave after wave, leaving you beached, breathless, uncertain whether the meaning is quite what it seems to be, but yes, you know it is, it really is. This really did happen.
The story explores the experience of two German families through the war, one living in Berlin, and one on a farm outside Leipzig. The point of view is embedded in the lives of these ordinary people. They are the kind of people of whom we now say smugly, 'How could they have let it happen? How could they not have known?' Both families believe that Germany will win the war, and that the Fruher is protecting them. They long for their past wealth and status to be restored to them, and blame 'the English' and 'foreigners' for Germany's economic woes. They believe in Germany's superiority and specialness. They want Germany to be great again.
Very little of this is explicit, however. We are present with them in their small day to day doings, living their ordinary lives as well as they know how. There is nothing extraordinary, either heroic or evil, about any of it - unless you freeze frame for a moment, and look at what you know to be the context of these peoples' lives, and ask, But what are they actually doing? What does this actually mean? There is a surreal quality to these peoples' lives that is reflected powerfully in the prose. It is as if a template for living 'correctly' has been imposed on them all, and any sense of personal morality excised. Sometimes the book almost felt like science fiction, as if this was some kind of made up world, a dystopia, peopled with beings who looked and behaved to all intents and purposes like human beings, but were missing some vital humanising component.
The story is narrated by the Wish Child - a disembodied entity, who is based on Child K, the first child in Nazi Germany to be officially euthanased. His parents petitioned Hitler to allow them to euthanase their son, who had been born with multiple disabilities. Hitler sent his own doctor to see the child, (who went on to an astonishing career, being responsible for the oversight and actual murder of thousands of people he judged to be less than perfectly Aryan, and was subsequently hanged at Nuremburg.) The Wish Child is an all seeing narrator, but he largely leaves us to form our own judgements and draw our own conclusions. He has a peculiar combination of attributes - the innocence of childhood, the capacity to focus on what he sees rather than what he knows, and a natural affinity for the poetic idiom. This is, in part, what gives the prose its surreal quality, powerfully reflecting the surreal-ness of these peoples' lives.
Time and again I was moved to wonder and tears as I reached the end of a scene of domestic or working life, and the full import, the subtext, the reality of what was really happening, would slowly emerge from the pages as if materialising from a fog. In one scene, Emilie, the mother of Seiglinde, is jealous of her sister-in-law's beautiful samovar. She hears that there is one in an auction to be held in another part of the city, and she and Seiglinde travel there by train. They find the place, it is a private house, everything is to be sold. There is an atmosphere of excitement, the samovar is antique, and much more beautiful than her sister-in-law's. When the bidding starts, Emilie finds herself bidding for lots of things, and she gets the samovar. It is a happy and successful day. Slowly, we begin to think about what Seiglinde's mother does not think - that this house belonged to a Jewish family, these possessions have been stolen from them, the family has been split up and sent away, almost certainly to a concentration camp, and if they have not already been murdered, they soon will be. None of this is explicit, it arises only in the reader's mind, like a phantom, taking slow, grim and unmistakeable shape.
I followed my reading of The Wish Child with Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. Somewhat dog-eared, this book has been lying about for a while waiting for my attention. I was interested, emerging from the spell cast by The Wish Child, to see if this novel too could give any fresh insights into the Nazi years.
The Book Thief tells the story of a young girl, Leisel, who is effectively orphaned at the beginning of the war, and sent to live with foster parents in Molking, outside Munich. Through the trauma and deprivations of the war years, she holds on to a sense of identity and self esteem by stealing books, (an act of bravery and rebellion in the savagely book censoring Nazi regime.) and by teaching herself to read. She forms close attachments to a number of people in her life - school friend and fellow thief, Rudy Steiner, the Mayor's wife, the young Jewish man, Max, who her foster parents hide in their basement, and most particularly to her foster father. Almost all are subsequently killed. (I don't know why Zusak leaves it obscure at the end whether the man Leisel marries is actually Max - he treats nothing else in the book this way.)
The narrator of this story is also a disembodied, all-seeing entity - in this case, Death. But unlike in The Wish Child, where the narrator remains an ethereal and ultimately unknowable presence, the character of Death in The Book Thief is developed in a detailed and quite specific way. He has human traits - he gets tired, he gets disappointed, he is curious. Unfortunately, this leads to mounting problems with credibility. Death gathers up souls, for example, gently and carefully, and with great attention to the detail of the death scenes, which often distract him from his purpose. All this in real time. Increasingly, as the war progresses, I was starting to have intrusive thoughts, such as, how has he got time for this? There are probably several hundred thousand people dying today, and he's got no help! By the end, when Zusak writes of Death, 'When I travelled to Sydney and took Leisel away," I laughed out loud, the image of this Death had become a bit absurd.
Despite Death's extremely full on work load during the war years, he has time to observe the detailed day to day developments in Leisel's life. He knows her thoughts, listens to her conversations, muses on her conflicts and motivations. None of this has anything to do with her dying, which she doesn't do until she's an old lady. Why is he hanging about her like this? I kept asking myself. I forgot for long episodes that it was Death who was doing the narrating, and when I was reminded again, it was an uncomfortable and irritating intrusion. Death remains an artificial construct in this story, too developed as a real character to be convincing as Death, and yet not developed enough for us to believe in him or care.
In addition to all this, (oh dear, am I sounding curmudgeonly?), Death strikes a tone which is oddly jocular, by turns sarcastic, sardonic, whimsical, and tongue in cheek. I expect if you are inventing a personality for Death, you can make it what you like, Giving him a somewhat off-the-wall sense of humour has a freshness about it that might have worked better for me had the subject matter not been mass murder, enforced labour, war, terror, starvation, and genocide. Sometimes the tone almost makes it sound as if we are reading a children's book, for example, when Leisel's foster parents decide to hide a Jew in their basement, Death comments in one of his frequent subtitles, 'The Situation of Hans and Rosa Huberman - Very sticky indeed. In fact, frightfully sticky."
The scenes of bombed buildings, the frightening dashes to air raid shelters in the night, the suspicions of neighbours, the isolation and anxiety of people who were not following Nazi protocols to the letter, the rationing, the gradual falling apart of institutions and decimation of families - all are the standard fare of war stories. Leisel is a brave, plucky, resilient, strong, loyal little girl, and the crushing loss she has to face at the end when Himmel Street is reduced to rubble in a bombing raid, should have moved me.
I have read many stories of such people, their heroism, their rebellions, their resistance to the war and to Hitler's Germany. I am more interested these days to read about the sort of people Catherine Chidgey writes about in The Wish Child . People who didn't hide Jews in their basements, even though they might have been friends or neighbours; people who discovered that they'd really never liked or trusted Jews anyway, and now their feelings were being vindicated; people who took advantage of foreign labour, exploiting desperate people because no one stopped them, and after all they were only trying to put food on their own table, and the foreigners should count themselves lucky to have work at all; people who bought Jewish families' possessions, and like everyone who buys something off the back of a truck at a price that's too good to be true, put their own financial advantage over what they knew was wrong.
We are living now at a time when nationalism is on the rise in many countries. It starts as a bit of harmless flag waving, and a warm sentimental glow on national days of celebration. It is easily exploited by politicians, and quickly grows into something ugly - a collective sense of entitlement, that we are better than others, that our country is better than other countries, or deserves to be, or would be if it wasn't for outsiders/foreigners/immigrants. The us and them mentality is easily triggered; it lies sleeping in all of us, part of our dark side, of a primitive instinct for self preservation which places the self first. It has long been irrational. Taking care of others is demonstrably and almost universally the best way in the end of taking care of ourselves.
We need writers like Catherine Chidgey who are willing to explore the fault lines in these human tendencies, to expose the dark side that can be found in the thoughts and feelings of 'ordinary' people living average lives, you and me, to show us how it can happen that the private grievances and discontents of such people can morph into a collective nightmare of mass murder and persecution, a cataclysm engulfing millions, such as happened in the Nazi years.
Rehab suits me. My spirits are unaccountably calm and cheerful. I have a smile for everyone. I am grateful for everything.
It began, of course, with the discovery, on waking dreamily from the anaesthetic, that I am still alive. The world continues, and I am part of it still. Nurses clattering about their business, machines pinging and beeping, voices and footsteps.
The old pain has gone. There is a new pain, more an aching discomfort, a stiffness, that I somehow know is temporary. It's the feel of the wound in my hip. I can't walk without crutches, two at first, now one, but the limp has gone.
I need a lot of help with things at first, but quickly regain control with essentials. After three showers, I can shower myself. I can dress myself with the help of a long pick up tool. I can get in and out of bed, and go for walks up and down the corridors with my one crutch.
I have a room to myself at the end of a long corridor. It quickly becomes my world. Intrusions are mostly perfunctory and rare - tablets, fresh towel delivery, floor cleaner, nurse to do observations. Someone tried to get me to go down to the communal dining room for my meals, but I resisted and they didn't try again. I eat alone, watch the television sometimes, do my exercises, receive my visitors, and read. In less than a week, I have read three novels, (John Boyne, The Heart's Invisible Furies, Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have Family? and Noah Hawley, After the Fall.) I had a slight anxiety that I would run out of reading material, and organised visitors to bring me more books, and spent my 'day leave' going to the Portrait Gallery, not to look at the portraits, but to browse the lovely bookshop and buy two more books, (and scoff one of the wonderful Eccles cakes in the café.)
On my phone I follow the political shenanigans in the US and the UK, which absorb me like a long running soap opera. In my little rehab world, it all seems remote, and I am less dismayed. Political fortunes rise and fall, one drama gives way to another, people everywhere beaver away finding solutions to problems, continually carried forward by tides of optimism and hope, only to be left beached and despairing, and then picked up again by the bubbling tide for more.
The quiet winter sky outside my window lightens, darkens again. Patients in other rooms go home; new ones arrive, struggling with their walkers, telling their anxious stories. I am calm and at peace. Doing nothing is a prescription rather than a choice, and in this small space, I happily surrender control.
'Look at that!' the nice orthopaedic surgeon said, turning the screen towards me. 'That's as bad a hip joint as any I've seen.'
I peered at the grainy grey shapes of the X Ray. There was, to be sure, no gap at all between the ball joint and the hip socket, unlike in the other hip, where you could see a paler space all around it.
'Bone rubbing on bone,' he said, utterly confident, and I was 100% ready to believe him, after all these months of going down medical dead ends. Besides, he had already won me over by telling me cheerfully in our preliminary chat that he did not intend to be an orthopaedic surgeon all his life, but planned to apply to NIDA to train to become an actor. Now, three weeks later, with all manner of doubtful. doom-filled thoughts seeping in, this doesn't seem ;like quite the refreshing little jewel that it did then.
Hip replacement surgery, of course, was the solution, the one that has been loitering in the wings for ages. But it's my leg! I kept saying, it's my leg that hurts! But it's your hip that's causing the pain, someone needed to say.
'How soon do you want it done?' said the surgeon, as if no sane person would put it off for a moment longer than necessary.. And indeed, I'd made the decision before he'd finished asking the question.
'ASAP,' I said.
'May 30th is looking good,' said the surgeon..
Early last year, I wrote about going to a friend's funeral. What I didn't talk about was how this friend died. She had not been ill, and her death was wholly unexpected. She had gone into hospital for some routine procedure, (I have never been told what), and she developed complications and died.
Did she fear, I wonder, as she made her way up the winding mountain road to Canberra and to hospital, that she may never make the journey back home again? Did she think, as she went about making her preparations, (getting the washing done, making sure the fridge and pantry were stocked up, packing her overnight bag with her new PJ's and her books), that this might be the last time that she might do these things?
Of course, the chances of 'something going wrong' are very slight. Present though, and as the days are counted off to May 30th, they begin to seem larger than they are, and their presence begins to sharpen the edges of each day.
I busy myself with practical things. Do all the pruning, and tidying, and planting, and dahlia lifting, and weeding, that I possibly can, so that I don't stress about the garden for a few weeks. (And plant an oak tree, and plant bulbs, and picture the years to come in which they grow and flourish.) Clean the house from top to bottom, so it doesn't irritate me while I'm sitting about twiddling my thumbs. Write to friends who I haven't heard from for a while, (are they OK? When will I see them again?) And work through the final proof reading of the story collection, hours and hours of it, on the phone to publisher, Julian, who guides me through this extraordinarily painstaking process with unfailing patience and confidence. It must be done and ready for the printer by May 30th.
And of course, there are all the preparations for the rehab and recovery process. For although I will be, by all accounts, a 'new woman' after the op - will not, in fact, even 'know myself' - (scary thought, worthy of a Dr. Who script), yet there will be weeks of feeling worse. I must organise crutches, a raised toilet seat, a cushion for the car, a script for painkillers, a pathology workup, and new PJ's. I must make sure bills are paid, files organised, and reading material assembled. I must have a hair cut and get my laptop fixed.
Through all these preparations, I take many moments to pause and look about me. The golden spires of a line of poplars in the distance; mist lifting off the river in the morning and spreading across the paddocks; the totally-0n-to-it kookaburra perched on the gatepost watching for lizards; the sound of the river; a little pile of smooth, hard, grey sweet pea seeds in my hand, which hold the beginnings of scented flowers for the spring to come.
I count down the weeks, and then the days. Only seven days to go now! Gradually, I cross all the things off the list, feeling some small sense of achievement and control. It's what I do in my larger life, marking the years and the decades as they pass - the anniversaries, the Christmases, the holidays. Marking the achievements, the friendships, the struggles and dilemmas that give some meaning to it all.
Did my friend think of this too, as she made her way over the mountain? The inevitability of the end is foreshadowed many times in our lives, and each time provides an opportunity, maybe an insight or an epiphany. Maybe a reprieve.
How to live the time that's left?